Over the last decade, unmanned aerial vehicles and systems (UAV and UAS)—also referred to as drones—have become widely popular and gained significant interest in commercial, consumer and government markets. What used to be a largely military application now has more than 400 companies, worldwide, developing drone technology and enabling use cases for the new era of commercial drones. The premise of a flying object performing mission and business critical tasks, without much human involvement, offers a pivotal moment in the realm of smart automation and productivity. Unfortunately, regulations by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and other agencies, despite their positive intentions, limit the mass application of these drones. Additionally, growing competition is leading to commoditization before the market has even gained its footing. This article discusses how innovations in RF and microwave technology can provide a technical justification to ease the regulatory barriers and help drone manufacturers differentiate their solutions to better succeed in the marketplace.
The concept of UAV/UAS is not new and has been advocated in some shape or form since manned aircraft became widely used. Unfortunately, the limits of material science, propulsion, power and battery, sensor and software technologies have limited the use of drones to very specific industries and applications. Only large military forces could justify the cost to develop and use drones for intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance missions in environments too dangerous for humans. Even today, many of us relate drones to military missions that are commonly in the news.
Alternatively, low-cost, bare bones drones have been gaining popularity among enthusiasts and hobbyists for recreational purposes. Although drones have not been widely used for commercial applications, that is changing as the industry improves component technology and computing software. With the advent of industrial robots, autonomous driving, new propulsion technology and power efficient systems, the transition to UAVs is a natural evolution. An unmanned flying object that can be programmed to perform tasks that are too dangerous, time consuming or difficult for humans is a huge technological leap toward a more automated and productive world.
The drone market is expected to grow to about $21 billion by 2022.1 Today, about 82 percent of the market is focused on military applications. Commercial drones are expected to account for about $2.5 billion in revenue by 2021, representing a 19 percent year-over-year growth rate. The use cases in commercial and industrial markets range widely. Drones are being explored for applications such as precision agriculture (e.g., crop spraying), terrain and environmental monitoring, infrastructure monitoring (e.g., bridges and dams), public safety surveillance, commercial freight, border control and oil and gas pipeline monitoring. Each month, dozens of new companies introduce products and services using drone technology to solve business problems. The prospects for commercial UAV applications are virtually limitless.
Unfortunately, even though the drone market is becoming widely popular, with multiple companies exploring many use cases (e.g., Amazon and Alphabet’s Google), the industry faces challenges limiting its growth.
Heavily regulated and restricted—The FAA has strict rules that limit the use of drones in public air space. A 2015 ruling stipulates that drones weighing less than 55 pounds may only operate during the day and within the visual line-of-sight of the operator. These drones are not allowed to operate autonomously, reflecting the FAA’s safety and security concerns. From the government’s standpoint, the risk posed by most drones, not equipped with reliable and accurate sensors, is too high to allow operation in open public spaces. While exceptions are granted (e.g., in large open agricultural areas), in the majority of cases, due to limited sensor technology and unproven sensor reliability, the FAA has taken a more conservative stance to ensure safety and security.